skygiants: Clopin from Notre-Dame de Paris; text 'sans misere, sans frontiere' (comment faire un monde)
I've been cleaning up transcripts for Civil War-related interviews at work recently, which reminded me I never wrote up Alyssa Cole's An Extraordinary Union.

The heroine of An Extraordinary Union, Elle Burns, is very loosely based on Mary Bowser, a historical Civil War spy with an eidetic memory who worked undercover as a slave in Jefferson Davis' Confederate White House. Unsurprisingly, all the bits that feature Elle undercover and interacting with the other slaves in the household are really excellent, I would happily read twelve different iterations on Vaguely Fictionalized Mary Bowser.

The love interest ... is fine? I honestly don't remember much about him. He's Scottish with a tragic backstory, he is also a spy, he's smitten with Elle at first sight, and as a result I spent a lot of time in the first half of the book being kind of annoyed at him because I hit that thing where I'm like 'the stakes are too high for you to be making a pass here, knock it out! go back to spying!' I prefer my romantic espionage to come with a slightly higher dose of stressed-out mistrust and refusing to act on any feelings whatsoever because The Cause Comes First, and that goes double or triple when the stakes are so very much higher for one partner than the other. Anyway, once the romance is established (and I got over my irritation with the hero for attempting to pursue a romance at all under the circumstances) the Romantic Spyjinks were also very good and the heroic self-sacrifice level rose accordingly. The second book in the series is supposed to be coming out sometime in the next few months, I think, and I will be looking out for it.
skygiants: Clopin from Notre-Dame de Paris; text 'sans misere, sans frontiere' (comment faire un monde)
The Brightest Day: A Juneteenth Historical Romance Anthology is a collection of romance novellas by black authors focusing on celebrations commemorating the end of slavery, and it is 150% - nay, 200% - worth it for Alyssa Cole's "Let It Shine," which is now certainly in my top five and maybe in my top two romance novellas.

...this doesn't actually feel like saying that much because I tend to find romance novellas less satisfying and convincing than full-length novels overall, but "Let It Shine" is so good! The heroine, Sofie, is a black girl on the verge of joining the local chapter of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee; the hero, Ivan, is a Jewish kid whose family Sofie's mom used to work for, who trains at the local black boxing gym because the white country club won't have him, and joins the Civil Rights movement to share his training in how to take a hit.

Sofie falls into one of my favorite tropes -- the quiet, well-behaved girl whose self-control and steel spine are greater strengths than anyone around her realizes -- and the story also falls into one of my favorite romantic tropes, which is when two people fall in love working towards something that they put ahead of themselves and their romance. The novella is also really effective at building its heroic character moments around participatory movements and strategic nonviolence, which despite its historic importance is something I feel like I rarely see portrayed in fiction (especially romance, a genre in which "impulse control" is ... an infrequently valorized virtue .....)

Also, there is a sexy boxing ring scene and it's very good.

The other three novellas in the anthology didn't work for me as well, although "Let It Shine" is so good that it's not really fair to compare. My second favorite was probably Kianna Alexander's "Drifting to You," which is just a very cute, relatively unstressful story about a baker and a shipbuilder getting together on a celebratory Juneteenth cruise in 1875 that is a Professional Milestone for both of them as former slaves trying to establish businesses in the free black community. I was very concerned that the narrative tension was going to involve something going wrong with either the cake or the boat and imperil their Professional Careers, so it was a relief that the only actual plot features a cardboard villain who pops briefly up to harass the heroine and is put down again within three pages.

Lena Hart's "Amazing Grace" is about a former slave who goes out west as a mail-order bride and then falls in love with a former Confederate soldier instead, which would be a hard sell for me in almost any circumstance. I liked the heroine of Piper Huguley's "A Sweet Way to Freedom" a lot -- she's an unmarried, pregnant schoolteacher in 1910 wrestling with the damage to her reputation and her pride if she goes home to her family for support -- but I did not like the hero, the bar owner who got her pregnant and then bounced, and I think I would have needed a full book to believe in his reformation, which frequently is my problem with novellas.

Anyway! Alyssa Cole! "Let It Shine!" ABSOLUTELY WORTH IT, will be seeking out more of her stuff.

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